Sowers latest in long line of top-notch Hempfield pitchers

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019 | 12:01 AM


So often in the WPIAL and PIAA softball playoffs, success or downfall depends on the girl in the chalk-rimmed circle in the middle of the infield.

As the pitcher goes, so go her teammates.

Hempfield knows plenty about that.

From Jaci Kalp to Tina Skelly and Morgan Ryan to Maddie Uschock — and many others — pitching has been as plentiful as it’s been dominant. Those standouts led the Spartans to deep, thrilling postseason runs that were punctuated with WPIAL and state championships.

Pitcher is the top role at Hempfield: the glamour position, the lead singer, the quarterback.

Sophomore Callie Sowers knew she could be next up this season for the Spartans, winners of the past four WPIAL championships and three straight PIAA titles in the state’s largest classification, but she also knew there might be some adjusting to the accompanying pressure.

Third-seeded Hempfield (15-6) takes on No. 1 North Allegheny (15-6) in the finals at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Peterswood Park in Peters Township.

Following a slow start, Sowers has become a formidable presence for Hempfield, looking more the part with each win.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said.

Sowers went from feeling like she was alone on an island to being just another rower in the boat — albeit the one occupying the seat at the stern.

“Last year, I watched Maddie pitch an incredible season, and she has taught me a lot of key points I use throughout this season,” Sowers said of Uschock, who is pitching at Division II Dominican (N.Y.).

Ryan is a sophomore reliever at Notre Dame.

“At first, I was very nervous about how I would contribute to the program like Maddie and Morgan did,” Sowers said. “But having a great group of girls behind me in the field makes me feel much more relieved and supported.”

Sowers struck out 12 last Wednesday in a 3-0, nine-inning win over Seneca Valley in the semifinals and fanned another dozen in her first playoff appearance, a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Baldwin.

She is 15-5 with a 2.33 ERA, 162 strikeouts and 35 walks in 132 innings. Her first-year numbers rival those of Ryan.

“I have seen her progress the past two seasons from a hard-throwing freshman that was ineffective at the junior varsity level last year to arguably the best pitcher in 6A now,” Hempfield coach Bob Kalp said. “After her freshman year, she realized she had great potential that needed refined and dedicated herself to a regular workout schedule.”

Sowers worked with Jana Hudson, who has helped develop a number of area pitchers. The assistance of a private coach — and weekly workouts with Hempfield assistant Ray Mello — allowed Sowers to push herself to be varsity ready.

Struggles were evident early in the season as Hempfield tried to find the right mix to replace another talented crop of seniors.

Sowers said she was trying to find her own style.

“At first, it was very challenging to get in a groove and feel confident while playing, but I quickly realized what I needed to do for success,” she said. “From the beginning of the season until now, not only has the way I’ve been playing physically been better, but my mental view on the game and my confidence has changed completely.”

While she has a zinger of a fastball, Sowers said she is working on better movement pitches. Kalp is a stickler for details and preparation, particularly when it comes to defense. That safety net behind Sowers is a key to the team’s latest postseason run.

“I like to vary my pitches and throw certain pitches depending on the team,” she said. “I go into every game with confidence and try to do the most for my team, but in the end, I know that no matter what I have my teammates behind me, and they will make big plays.”

Kalp has watched dozens of pitchers come through his program. Some were sure things and others needed time to improve. Sowers might be somewhere in between.

She shared duties with junior Kylie Saus for the early part of the season. But Saus went down with a season-ending leg injury, and Sowers became the lone wolf.

The extra time, perhaps, sharpened her game.

“Experience can only be gained by pitching in games and learning to handle game circumstances, both good and bad,” Kalp said. “She has also worked to become a better fielder to contribute once the ball leaves her hand. How good she will be will be determined by how hard she is willing to work to get better.

“I don’t think there is any pressure on her to become the next outstanding pitcher at Hempfield. I think she understands if she commits to maximizing her talent she can be one of the top pitchers to represent Hempfield.”

Assistant Ed Diorio, Kalp said, also has played a key role in Sowers’ development. A former Seton Hill assistant, Diorio has assisted the 80-year-old Mello, who has not been able to attend as many workouts this season.

And sophomore catcher Emma Hoffner’s role cannot be understated.

“Hoffner has had a tremendous impact with Callie’s development,” Kalp said. “She has constantly supported her and helped her to maintain poise during tough times. Kid-to-kid interaction is tremendously effective.”

Hoffner appreciates the efforts and maturation of her battery mate.

“Callie has made tremendous progress throughout the season,” Hoffner said. “From Day 1, she has been all in and continues to work harder as the season goes on. I have seen a major change in her mental side of the game. Coming into a program like ours is very intimidating, but Callie has taken on the role, and we rely on her in a lot of our close games. She is so much fun to play with and will keep a smile on your face throughout every pitch of the game.”

Sowers said Kalp and teammates have provided a shot in the arm to support her confidence and comfort level.

“Coach Kalp has taught me to be confident in myself, and it’s affected the way I’ve been playing,” she said.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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